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November 8, 2023

The Space of Critical Immersion

Nina Knaack explores how Nxt Museum is replacing digital spectacle with something critical
Credit: Random International, Living Room, 2023. Photography by Esteban Schunemann. Courtesy of Nxt Museum
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The Space of Critical Immersion

Since 2020, Nxt Museum has combined exhibitions and performances with research into new media art. The first such museum in the Netherlands, over the past year it has established a newly critical form of immersive experience through its rotating Realtime program. The series’ inaugural exhibition, “Lilypads: Mediating Exponential Systems,” showcases works by Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Libby Heaney, and Entangled Others Studio in collaboration with Robert M. Thomas. Harnessing the potential of AI to reimagine cultural, ecological, and technical systems, the artists invite us to reflect on normative ways of seeing, plunging us into the uncertain world of quantum mechanics while fusing neural networks with oceanic data.

Following news of the show’s extension to the end of 2023, Nina Knaack caught up with the curators Charlotte Kent and Jesse Damiani along with the museum’s co-founder and Creative Director, Natasha Greenhalgh, to understand how AI-driven exhibitions can engage critically as well as visually.

Installation view of “Lilypads: Mediating Exponential Systems” with work: Q is for Climate (2023) by Libby Heaney. Courtesy of Nxt Museum

Nina Knaack: How did the lily pad emerge as a means of moving through a variety of perspectives on our collective cultures, ecologies, technologies, and economics? How did it inform your choice of artists for the first Realtime exhibition series?

Charlotte Kent: Lily pads appeared as a concept while we were speaking about systems thinking. In The Limits to Growth (1972) and in subsequent texts, the water lily is used as a metaphor for exponential growth:

The lily plant doubles in size each day. If the lily were allowed to grow unchecked, it would completely cover the pond in 30 days, choking off the other forms of life in the water.¹

At the same time, a lily pad is a metaphor for landing someplace safe. The contrast of these two symbolic uses of the lily pad appealed to us because it provided an approach that didn’t embrace or reject unilaterally the issues with technology. It also provided a reference to environmental issues, which have been on our mind given the current state of things, as well as the materiality of technology that is often made to seem ephemeral. The artists in this exhibition share this multifaceted relationship with technology, being knowledgeable practitioners who understand its potentials and pitfalls, with great attention paid to environmental issues.

Installation view of “Lilypads: Mediating Exponential Systems” with works: MIDNIGHT & TO BODY (2023) by Amelia Winger-Bearskin. Courtesy of Nxt Museum

The connection between technology and the environment is also an economic issue, as was made explicit in The Limits to Growth, which showed the relationship between ecological limits and economic dependencies. Landscape painting, including Dutch landscape painting, has often been regarded as a factual reproduction of a particular geography, though this is rarely true. Landscape is a fascinating genre, partly for the way depictions of place have reflected imperial projects across different periods and cultures around the world. That led me to think about how artists are currently producing landscapes in digital contexts, and how they can disrupt the imperial gaze that guides those imaginaries. 

The artists in the exhibition engage in a kind of intentional misuse of emerging technologies to show how else those techs can be used and to disrupt the imaginary that those techs seem to reproduce.
Entangled Others Studio, Decohering Delineation (Still 2), 2022-23. Courtesy of the artists and Nxt Museum

Jesse Damiani: The powerful few in this world hold asymmetrical power to determine reality for the many, and these people seem to be locked in an arms race with each other based on a naive metanarrative of progress. In this framework, we must “progress” at apparently any cost, even our own survival on this planet. Innovation begets efficiency and, in the global marketplace, success equals exponential growth. It’s no coincidence that the buzziest technologies are the ones capable of exponential growth. 

Here, the juxtaposition announces itself — these technologies will likely extend the worst of extractivism, yet we find ourselves out of time to solve the existing problems created by extraction. For some of our gravest problems, it may turn out that exponential approaches are the proverbial lesser of two evils in mitigating future suffering (for human and nonhuman others). But this is a murky, nuanced idea space without clear answers. 

With the lily pad operating as a symbol of both ecological overshoot and possible safe harbor from the externalities of that overshoot, we wanted to find artists whose work with emerging technologies was rooted in rigor, who were able to dance with the technologies and find joy in the newly possible while simultaneously operating from positions of critique. 

In Entangled Others Studio, Robert M. Thomas, Libby Heaney, and Amelia Winger-Bearskin we found such artists, and the works presented in “Lilypads” brought incredible new interpretations, translations, and reflections to Charlotte’s and my original conversations. I couldn’t be more honored to work with them.

Libby Heaney, Q is for Climate, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Nxt Museum

NK: With AI-driven exhibits, there’s potential for technical jargon to overwhelm an audience. How do you ensure that the technology doesn’t overshadow the artistic intent?

CK: This is an art exhibition and these artists are not in the business of doing tech demos. 

No audience member needs to know about the technologies being used to understand and appreciate these works anymore than they need to know recipes for egg tempera painting to appreciate the craft of Renaissance painting. 

The layering, visual call-and-response effects, image disintegration or obscuration, and sound environments’ relationship to the visual will all be evident to the senses and make sense on their own. For audiences who want to know more, we have included information from the artists about their practices on the back wall, and that will certainly reinforce connections and expand the knowledge that experiencing the works introduces. 

The talent of these artists is their ability to make art that stands alone but also offers the opportunity to learn a great deal, if one wishes, about current, past and possible environmental conditions, interspecies mingling, cultural forces, as well as the technologies themselves. The works inspired the range of ideas that I presented in my essay about the show because I wanted to emphasize the possibility of free association with digital art, which is a space often treated as concept-laden and didactic or else shallow and superficial. The great opportunity of art is to be able to observe and think and share in order to discover and learn and proceed beyond where one had begun, and that can happen again and again with each encounter.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin, MIDNIGHT & TO BODY, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Nxt Museum

JD: It helps that this work is presented on the Nxt Stage, which is the largest at Nxt Museum. The word “immersive” gets tossed around a lot, but the sheer scale of Nxt Stage is truly immersive. Going for scale isn’t right for every project, but in this case it’s a wonderful aid in foregrounding the visceral experience of these works. 

We’ve done our best to offer avenues for diving deeper into the concepts, but when you first walk in, what you’re confronted with is aesthetically captivating art. We’re thrilled when audiences want to learn more about the underlying concepts and technologies, but the pure sensory experience of each of these works is powerful in its own right. 

Our hypothesis is that, for many, that sensory experience is the ideal foundation for venturing into these complex topics.
Entangled Others Studio, Decohering Delineation (Still 1), 2022-23. Courtesy of the artists and Nxt Museum

NK: How do you regard the current state of digital art today and what curatorial approaches can help to engage a wider audience? What are Nxt Museum’s plans for future programming?

JD: Digital art has never been more visible to the public, which is thrilling to me, though it has come at certain costs. 

One of the issues I’ve observed since NFTs exploded into view is an acceleration of social media tendencies, where the art that often gets the most attention is that which can be quickly digested and disseminated as a little square on mobile devices, or from someone with a notable personal brand. 

This is not a knock on artists who find success on social media — it’s simply to point out that artists who work in slower, more conceptual or research-oriented modes can be eclipsed from view in this milieu. I’ve outlined my views regarding what I think curation can and should be in greater depth elsewhere on Right Click Save, but speaking specifically to Realtime, our hope was to create an experience of digital art that was sensorially arresting and which invited audiences to dive into thoughtful, layered concepts. Up next for Nxt is the museum’s first-ever solo show: Random International’s “Life in a Different Resolution,” curated by Bogomir Doringer. Sometime after that you should keep an eye out for a new iteration of Realtime.

Random International, Living Room, 2023. Photography by Esteban Schunemann. Courtesy of Nxt Museum

Natasha Greenhalgh: There is some exciting work to be done when it comes to physical presentation and how to break the dependency on (LCD) screens. I’m excited by how physical exhibitions might start to express elements and concepts of digital work. 

Why are we still restrained by a two-dimensional screen? At Nxt Museum, we are passionate about finding new ways to break digital art free of the frames that often encase it. 

When appropriate, we want to support the artist’s vision by allowing them to fully inhabit the space and become part of the architecture, so that unusual materials and forms flow forth and audiences can explore and engage in less linear ways than they might in digital spheres. Our transition rooms at Nxt allow a curatorial narrative to unfold in more dynamic ways, while offering a space for audience participation and dialogue. This enables audiences to engage at whichever pitch is comfortable and interesting for them, such that they might be inspired to dive deeper and build greater understanding. 

Amelia Winger-Bearskin, MIDNIGHT & TO BODY, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Nxt Museum

For “Lilypads: Mediating Exponential Systems,” we are collating a publication documenting the exhibition as well as the supporting research that went into it. As a means of democratizing knowledge, the publication will present essays, transcripts of the working research session, Twitter space conversations, and artist interviews, as well as input from the audience that goes on throughout the course of the exhibition. Based on these insights, we will then start to refine the next Realtime show. 

“Life in a Different Resolution” traces a line through Random International’s process from 2006 until today, highlighting a recent shift in emphasis toward co-creation and the power of the collective act. The exhibition is coupled with a public program that focuses on activating local talent — opening a space for local creators and artists to interact directly with the works. This has included a dance intervention by Sedrig Verwoert of the National Opera & Ballet and ICK Dans Amsterdam. Our plans for 2024 seek to build on the success of our past ADE Artist-in-Residence programs, including our collaboration with Transmoderna and live-minting experiences courtesy of VERTICAL.

Random International, Fifteen Points, 2023. Photography by Esteban Schunemann. Courtesy of Nxt Museum

NK: Time seems to play a central role in the Realtime series. But how does the notion of “real” time apply to the exhibits?

NG: Nxt Realtime offers an active, evolving space for research and experimentation, focusing on the voices, explorations, and questions of today’s creators and audiences. We have developed a framework that invites artists, academics, curators, and the public to explore developments in digital art from a critical perspective. By constantly testing, learning, and questioning, Realtime will remain focused on current “real” developments and concerns. Its rotating series structure actively engages the general public in open conversation, whose “real” insights and feedback allow us to refine our exhibition framework to ensure they remain relevant. 

Through Realtime, people can reflect on digital and technical developments as they happen, rather than a year or so later. 
Random International, (Still from) Life in Our Minds, 2023. Courtesy of Nxt Museum

NK: How does the museum balance showcasing the beauty and possibilities of AI with its potential risks?

NG: Through Realtime exhibitions as well as research-based works such as The Coded Gaze by Algorithmic Justice League and via social media content, our blog, and in-museum audience touch points we aim to educate and encourage open discourse. Through our technically and spatially advanced installations we aspire to engage audiences both physically and emotionally, hoping that they are inspired to question and explore the works at a thematic, technical, and critical level. 

On AI’s potential risk, our primary aim is to develop the audience’s tech literacy, rendering what might be complex or alienating terms, language, and themes approachable and digestible and to allow room for critical reflection.

Taking the Realtime exhibition as an example, audiences can approach the works from a purely emotional standpoint, engulfed by the curved floor-to-wall projection and reverberating sound scores. But, if they wish to dissect the themes further, they can do so via the “context” screens on the back, which illustrate the projects’ research and development, and by reading a digital glossary in order to better understand specific terminology. For those who wish to engage more academically, philosophically, and technically they can delve into essays by leading scholars, join our live online conversations with experts, or else read the exhibition sum-up publication, which lays out the critical discussions between artists and curators throughout the research and development of the show. 

Random International, Our Future Selves, 2023. Courtesy of Nxt Museum

NK: How does Nxt Museum plan to replace spectacle with something that is both immersive and critical?

NG: By always starting from a critical line of inquiry and anchoring all artworks and projects in context. And we don’t plan to, we already do — this is why we exist and what excites and drives us. All our arts programming is curated rigorously, drawing on extensive research which sets the tone for all of our work. Exhibition themes and concepts are elaborated through our public program of events, tours, and, beyond the museum’s walls, through our podcast series, editorial, and virtual gallery

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Jesse Damiani is a curator, writer, and advisor in new media art and emerging technologies. He is the founder of Postreality Labs, a strategic sensemaking studio based in Los Angeles. He is Curator & Director of Simulation Literacies at Nxt Museum, Arts & Culture Advisor for Protocol Labs, and an Affiliate of the metaLAB at Harvard and Institute for the Future. His writing appears in Billboard, Forbes, NBC News, Right Click Save, The Verge, and WIRED. Recent curated exhibitions include “PROOF OF ART” at Francisco Carolinum Linz, the first museum retrospective on the history of NFTs; “Synthetic Wilderness” at Honor Fraser Gallery; and “Brief Histories of Simulated Lifeforms” at Vellum LA. Other ongoing curation includes the XR For Change Summit at the Games For Change Festival. Damiani formerly served as Director of Emerging Technology & Insight at Southern New Hampshire University, where he led the Future of Work initiative.

Natasha Greenhalgh is the co-founder and Creative Director of Amsterdam’s Nxt Museum, the home for new media art in the Netherlands, uniting her passion for art, technology, and sound. Driven by creating new realities, Natasha is committed to exploring and prototyping new creative tools, narratives, and collaborations. Having studied at Chelsea College of Art, Natasha’s training in Spatial Design drives her interest in how Nxt can most effectively use its dynamic space to communicate its focus on the future, constantly looking for opportunity and innovation. Natasha is devoted to ensuring Nxt is a place for the many and not just a few, opening up conversations to those who might have previously felt excluded. In addition, Natasha is driving the development of Nxt Lab, an educational space for experimentation, research, development, and failure that is designed to empower and inspire the pioneers of tomorrow. 

Charlotte Kent is an arts writer and Associate Professor of Visual Culture at Montclair State University, with a particular interest in the intersection of art, digital culture, and the absurd, especially as it troubles static perceptions of contemporary political and ecological practices. She is co-editor with Katherine Guinness of Contemporary Absurdities, Existential Crises, and Visual Art (forthcoming, Intellect Books). She continues to research assorted disciplinary approaches to the absurd — ranging from Aristotelian Logic to Zen Buddhism — as an intersectional feminist method of engaging the complex work of contemporary artists and speculative designers disrupting notions of autonomy, anthropocentrism, techno-capitalism, militarism, and other structures of power. She is also an Editor-at-Large with a monthly column and panel on art and technology for The Brooklyn Rail and writes for various magazines and academic journals, as well as contributing essays to catalogs and books.

Nina Knaack is a contemporary art historian and writer based in Amsterdam. She is passionate about telling the stories of artists so that they can focus on creating. Knaack has written for a range of cultural magazines in her homeland, including 3voor12 and Groninger Museum. Her work focuses on the digital art world and how crypto artists can build careers without gatekeepers. She also writes for Culture3 and Nifty Gateway, while working with artists and collectors.


¹ DH Meadows, DL Meadows, J Randers, and WW Behrens III, The Limits to Growth, New York: Universe Books, 1972, 29.